’Cook with lard,’ screamed the Daily Mail. ‘Break out the chips,’ rejoiced The Star. ‘Eating saturated fat is GOOD for you,’ blared The Mirror.
As these headlines testify, the received wisdom around fat - and in particular dairy and animal fat - has been turned on its head.
So what’s going on? How widely accepted is the science underpinning these new findings? And what are the implications for the food and drink industry?
In fact, scientists have been questioning the demonisation of fats since the 1950s, but in 1970, a piece of landmark research from US nutritionist Dr Ancel Keys - and his appearance on the front cover of Time magazine - proved so influential in blaming saturated fats for the heart disease epidemic sweeping the US - that sticking up for saturated fats became a sort of heresy.
As the obesity epidemic has worsened, however, scientists have not only focused their sights on carbohydrates, in the so-called ‘war on sugar’. They’ve also increasingly been re-examining the role of saturated fat. And their conclusions are quite startling.
Singing from the rooftops
In 2010, a report by Dr Patty Siri-Tarino, program director at the US Family Heart and Nutrition Centre, based on a major collection of studies, claimed “there is no convincing evidence that saturated fat causes heart disease.” It spurred fierce debate. The US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee went on to scrap its low saturated fat recommendations in June 2015, for the first time in nearly seven decades. “We really need to sing it from the rooftops that the low-fat diet concept is dead,” said Dr Dariush Mozaffarian, a Boston-based nutritional science expert, in the same month.
Two subsequent studies sparked a similar debate here in the UK. In March 2014, Dr Rajiv Chowdhury examined 72 studies (covering 600,000 participants across 18 nations) and concluded there was insufficient evidence that ditching fatty cuts of meat for oily fish protected the heart.
Then Professor Russell de Souza published his take on the fat debate in February 2015. His first finding, that transfats increased the chance of heart problems, was nothing new. But he also backed up Chowdhury in agreeing that saturated fats weren’t a significant contributor to heart disease - though to be fair he didn’t find specific health benefits for them either.
British cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra went further, claiming abandoning saturated fat in our diets had actually increased the risk of heart disease. Taking out fat had left the food industry piling foods with added sugar to compensate on taste and left us more exposed to diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity - all risk factors in developing heart problems, Malhotra said.
The deluge of new advice didn’t end there. Even though fat has twice as many calories per gram as carbohydrates and protein, a Harvard study from October 2015 analysed 67,000 dieters and found those who cut back on fat were two-and-a-half pounds heavier after a year than those who embraced a low-carbohydrate approach instead.
“Bodies don’t process all calories in the same way,” says investigative journalist Nina Teicholz, who has dedicated a decade to investigating fats. “Fat and protein turn out to be uniquely satiating so that one is less likely to overeat on these, whereas carbohydrates are less satiating.”
As a result “it’s becoming hard for the public health establishment to justify its anti-satfat stance,” says author Joanna Blythman.
Yet they do. Current government guidance remains the same as in 2007 (and still relies on nutrients research from 1991). It recommends “just a little saturated fat” in our diets with “plenty of starchy foods” and a total fat consumption of “not more than 35%” of daily energy. It also says saturated fat should not exceed 11% of total calories.
Nonetheless, the growing evidence over the role of fat left such a big question mark that the Scientific Committee on Nutrition even took a break from attacking sugar in October to set up a new Fats Working Group. Just don’t expect its conclusion any time soon. It has set itself a target of December 2017 to publish a complete review.
Until then, the scientific community remains divided. Even the British Heart Foundation, which funded Chowdhury’s 2014 study, isn’t convinced by his conclusions. As a result, it continues to recommend keeping consumption of saturated fats to 30g a day, the equivalent of two tablespoons of butter. Chowdhury had to make several corrections to his paper, says BHF dietician Tracy Parker, and failed to take account of the “saturation gap”. Whether saturated fats are a healthier alternative depends entirely on what consumers have been indulging in as a replacement, she says.
The British Nutrition Foundation is also circumspect about Chowdhury’s findings. It cited a major 2009 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that found swapping saturated fats for carbs increased risk of coronary disease by 7%, but replacing them with unsaturated fats (particularly those with omega-6 such as nuts, seeds and oils) reduced risk by 13%. Chowdhury hadn’t tested these differentiations.
Steve Osborn, principal food and beverage consultant at the Aurora Ceres Partnership, is equally cautious. “This research might turn out to be flawed or limited,” he says. “Any sudden excessive promotion of any component of our diet needs to be treated with caution.”
Tam Fry, spokesman for the National Obesity Forum, says it’s even simpler. “There are a lot of people with bees in their bonnet that want to rectify the Ancel Keys decision,” he says. “But only certain fats are good for you. Saturated fat is unsatisfactory, and unsaturated fat is good for you. It’s as simple as that.”
Teicholz isn’t surprised by the debate. “The potential reversal of more than half a century of institutionalised and entrenched nutritional advice will be a slow and difficult process,” she says. “Scientists are not eager to be in the vanguard, for many reasons.”
Nonetheless, Teicholz thinks it’s important to embrace high-fat foods like meat and dairy. “The only way to get that fat is to eat the foods that naturally contain fat, which are animal foods,” she advises.
Even weight-loss gurus are ditching low-fat diets. Scientist Eric Westman (co-author of ‘The New Atkins For a New You’) says “bacon, cheese, cream, mayonnaise, butter and oil are all healthy parts of a low-carb diet” in his dieting tips.
And how have consumers responded to the favourable reports? According to our exclusive poll from Harris Interactive, 27% have upped intake of butter, 13% are drinking more full-fat milk and 13% are opting for more fatty cuts of bacon. Change is slow though, with only 3% admitting to purposefully eating more fats.
For the food and drinks industry, the new findings on fat are potentially very significant. The government has only managed to cut total fat consumption to below 35% of energy “largely thanks to a concerted effort from the dairy and meat industry to produce leaner animals by genetics and breeding technology,” and to offer consumers “leaner cuts” and lower-fat milks, says the AHDB’s Maureen Strong.
Meanwhile, butter is enjoying a real renaissance. In the US, 892,000 tonnes will be eaten this year, the most since World War Two. It’s a similar story in the UK, where butter sales have been growing since 2011 and volume sales increased again last year (by 9.4%), compared with a 7.4% drop in volume for margarine, according to Kantar Worldpanel. Though retail price has some role to play in these fluctuations, says Alex Bandini, strategic insight director at Kantar Worldpanel, low fat has “declined as a motivator for consumer choice”.
For Dr Judith Bryans, chief executive of Dairy UK, the “shift towards a more positive image and understanding of dairy fats is more than welcome” and leaves “significant potential in terms of innovation”.
“Until now, the dairy industry has spent a lot of time and effort trying to take fat out of dairy products to meet consumer expectations,” she adds. “Today, we can finally move on and focus on new areas of innovations such as high protein or functionality.”
More favourable coverage of fats has also paid off for emerging categories like coconut oil. Sales have more than tripled in the past year, from £4.4m to £13m in September 2015, according to Kantar’s figures.
Yet Osborn advises caution to both brands and retailers excited at the possibilities. “As an industry we should have a holistic approach to both reformulation and nutrition,” he says. “Let’s not demonise one ingredient in sugar and lord up the benefits of another.”
Not least because it leaves consumers baffled. Thirty-three per cent are already thoroughly confused by current advice on fats, according to our Harris Interactive poll (compared with 18% on sugar) with only 9% confident they know the differences between saturated, unsaturated and trans fats.
Nevertheless, consumers more open to fatty foods present a tempting opportunity for fmcg. “Consumers can now enjoy reasonable amounts of nutritious products such as cheese and butter guilt-free,” adds Bryans. “This is our chance to offer tasty and versatile foods adapted to their needs and expectations.”
Is it OK to eat lard (and other fats)?
Fat per 100g: 14g saturated; 24g unsaturated
Pro-fat: Fans of high-fat diets recommend sourcing more of the fat we eat from natural, animal-based sources like meat. Not least because a fry-up leaves us less likely to overeat later in the day, according to journalist Nina Teicholz. “If you eat bacon and eggs for breakfast, you’re not hungry until lunch, whereas that’s not true with a low-fat yoghurt.”
Anti-fat: Bacon is actually higher in healthy unsaturated fats than saturated. It’s still 40% fat though, so nutritionists recommend going for the leanest cut available (back bacon contains less fat than streaky) and cutting off all visible fat when cooked.
Fat per 100g: 51g saturated; 24g unsaturated
Pro-fat: Butter sales have been booming here in the UK since as early as 2011, a fact welcomed by nutritionists and scientists that say dairy fats are a great source of nutrients and far more satiating than alternatives. The long-held belief too much butter on our bread could increase our chance of developing heart disease has been thoroughly disproven, they claim.
Anti-fat: The evidence hasn’t convinced everyone though. The NHS and British Heart Foundation insist butter should be eaten in moderation as it’s high in satfats. Vegetable oils for cooking are a far healthier alternative. Cream
Fat per 100g: 14g saturated; 7g unsaturated
Pro-fat: Cream has been vilified ever since the 1970s when Dr Ancel Keys linked foods high in satfat with heart disease and obesity. That’s now been all but disproven, say experts backing recent studies, and as a rich source of nutrients there’s no reason to ditch full-fat cream for low-fat alternatives that could be higher in sugar (used by industry to replace the taste provided by fats).
Anti-fat: Cream is high in fat, particularly saturated fat. The NHS recommends using it “sparingly” and where possible opting for plain yoghurt and fromage frais instead of cream in recipes.
Fat per 100g: 21g saturated; 10g unsaturated (in Cheddar)
Pro-fat: Cheese is a great source of protein and calcium and the fatty acids have proven health benefits, say nutritionists pushing for more fat in our diets. Not only that, but many low-fat varieties of cheese are packed full of refined carbs and sugar to make up for the loss in taste. Studies testing the “saturation gap” suggest these are riskier to our heart than a few extra cubes of full-fat cheese.
Anti-fat: The NHS recommends opting for types with the lowest fat content possible to avoid stocking up on satfats. Try Parmesan, feta or goats cheese for a nutrient boost without the fat.
Fat per 100g: 19g saturated; 8g unsaturated
Pro-fat: Cocoa, the core component of chocolate, delivers some potentially fantastic health benefits including, paradoxically, protecting us from heart disease. But sadly for chocolatiers no nutritionist recommends gorging on chocolate regardless of their view on fats. That’s because…
Anti-fat: Even if you ignore the fact that chocolate contains more saturated fat per 100g than bacon, it’s packed full of sugar too, a foodie enemy experts are more united against.
Fat per 100g: 87g saturated; 8g unsaturated
Pro-fat: All those health nuts spooning coconut oil into their tea might be surprised to hear it has significantly more saturated fat per 100g (87g) than even butter (51g). Backers of the new pro-fat mantra argue that coconut oil is high in naturally occurring saturated fat so it’s actually really good for us, particularly as it’s made up of about two-thirds medium-chain fatty acids, which studies show have a range of health benefits.
Anti-fat: Many UK nutritionists continue to believe too much satfat increases the risk of heart disease and makes us put on weight - whatever the source.
Fat per 100g: 32g saturated; 52g unsaturated
Pro-fat: Nutritionists that advocate more animal fat in our diet extol the health virtues of cooking with lard. It’s rich in both saturated and unsaturated fats from an animal-based source. Far better for us, they say, than the processed cooking oils out there. And it comes in posh foodie versions now too, such as spreadable rosemary and garlic lard from L’Emporio Fine Foods.
Anti-fat: Steer clear, recommends the British Heart Foundation, and opt instead for vegetable and olive oils as they’re lower in saturated fat.
Fat per 100g: 15g saturated; 46g unsaturated (in Brazil nuts)
Pro-fat: High in healthy unsaturated fats, nuts are given a big tick by most nutritionists. In 2015, a Dutch study found people who ate half a handful a day were less likely to die from chronic disease. Not only that, say the pro-fat lobby, they’re more satiating than other snacks as they’re high in fat.
Anti-fat: It’s not that simple, say other nutritionists. Extremely dense, nuts are high in calories and saturated fats and there still isn’t sufficient evidence to prove these don’t cause heart disease and make you fat.
Fat per 100g: 14g saturated; 84g unsaturated
Pro-fat: as a staple of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil has had a fabulous press as it contains unsaturated fats. However, for Nina Teicholz, “no one’s ever been able to pinpoint any special, disease-fighting powers for olive oil” and she is highly critical of promoting the Mediterranean diet at all.
Anti-fat: The British Heart Foundation disagrees. It recommends olive oil rather than butter as it’s rich in unsaturated fats. There is sufficient evidence, they say, to prove these are the healthier options for our heart.
Fat per 100g: 9g saturated; 16g unsaturated
Pro-fat: Bangers are high in satfats but high fat advocates say there’s no proof saturated fats increase the risk of heart disease while those extra calories from adding sausages to your fry-up are more satiating than other foods - so you won’t gorge later.
Anti-fat: The NHS recommends limiting intake of processed meats high in all types of fat, including satfat. They maintain this fat can increase the risk of heart disease and obesity. The Department of Health advises people to keep red and processed meat to 70 grams a day and grill rather than fry, too.
The headlines pushing fat…
FAT is the key to living longer: Previous diet advice was WRONG
A DIET of “real food” containing plenty of natural fat could be the key to living a long and healthy life. February 2015
Un-brie-llevable! There is finally a cheese which can help you LOSE weight
CHEESE lovers rejoice - you can now feast on fabulous fromage without worrying about piling on the pounds. June 2015
Saturated fats in meat and dairy not as bad for health as previously thought, study finds
The study failed to find a link between food containing saturated fats and an increased risk of dying from heart disease, strokes or Type 2 diabetes. August 2015
…and those condemning it
Forsaking fat is BETTER for your health
A fat lot of good: What foods to avoid this festive season
’Tis the season to indulge in lots of fatty food. But what should we avoid? Darren Danks finds out… December 2015
Sorry, coconuts may not be good for you after all: Devotees claim it contains ‘healthy’ fats. But a leading dietician isn’t convinced. July 2015